Chicagoans of all races, colors, and creeds came together today for the 28th Annual Interfaith Memorial Observance for Indigent Persons. This is a memorial service to deceased Cook County residents who are forgotten by society and die alone and unknown. They include unborn babies, children, and adults who had no family to claim them when they died. The Memorial service offers all Chicagoans the opportunity to attend and act as a surrogate family to those people who were buried without family or friends to mark their passing.
Last year’s Indigent service honored 140 people whose bodies were buried in pauper’s graves after sitting unclaimed for months in the Cook Country Medical Examiner’s office. They often include homeless people, and around a dozen of the Indigent burials each year are truly lost to history and “known only to God”. During the service, there is a reading of the names of those who died over the past 12 months but did not receive a proper burial, include a list of those “known only to God”. Each year, during the service, a bell chimes intermittently to symbolize the deceased persons, and five candles are lit. Hymns are typically sung each year by the First Light Acolytes Youth, and devotional statements are read by representatives of various Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. In the past, Hindu, Native American and Zoroastrian prayers have been offered as well.
This year’s Annual Interfaith Memorial Observance for the Indigent was held on May 29th at Noon. It took place at the Chicago Temple at 77 W. Washington St. (directly across the street from Daley Center in Chicago), a tall skyscraper that is home to the First United Methodist Church of Chicago. The Archdiocese of Chicago participated on behalf of Catholics, and Vincentian priest Fr. Edward Udovic (DePaul University‘s vice president for teaching and learning) offered this year’s keynote address. In addition to Christians of multiple denominations, many other faith traditions participated in the memorial service. The Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs helped sponsor the event. (EIA assists with coordinating the program by providing various prayers and music.) A reception followed shortly afterwards. The Reverend Phillip Blackwell, senior pastor at the First United Methodist Temple, officiated at this year’s ceremony.
The Indigent Memorial Service was founded by W. Earl Lewis. Back in 1981, he was working as a doorman in Chicago when he learned about the mass burials that occurred in Cook County each year when nobody claimed the bodies. From 1984 to 1986, Mr. Lewis labored passionately to establish an Annual Interfaith Memorial Service for the indigent, and he coordinated the first service.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle delivered the keynote address last year and commented “The individuals we recognize today—we don’t know their stores, and we don’t know what brought them into our custody…but each was a member of our community. They had family and friends; they were daughters and sons, parents and grandparents. And today, while we may not have personally known them, we recognize them and honor them.”
Typically, politicians like Preckwinkle get involved by acknowledging and participating in the event. During past services, then Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and then Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed proclamations recognizing the event (Daley’s 2005 statement declared “We Remember, We Care For Indigent Persons Day in Chicago“), and their successors have carried on this policy. But many of the 100 or so Chicago area faithful who attended the service say it is biting reminder that more needs to be done to hold politicians accountable for the hundreds of unclaimed bodies. “This is a call for accountability to local constituencies to do a better job of taking care of their people,” noted Rev. Blackwell. He added: “These people are a part of the community who often go nameless and freeze under our bridges and stand outside Union Station asking for your change. But they matter in some way.” President Preckwinkle offered some lip service about government reforms during last year’s memorial, saying Cook County has made “significant reforms within the Medical Examiner’s Office,” She also pointing out “We have reviewed and formalized policies, personnel practices and procedures to make sure the office is fully accountable to all our residents. We’ve already seen progress. The changes we’ve implemented in the Medical Examiner’s Office will mean that those who come into our care will be laid to rest as quickly as possible, and with the utmost respect and dignity.”
Still, the large number of bodies that go unclaimed each year is a reminder that the status quo is unacceptable. If Chicagoans can come together as one to remember those people, maybe it’s time we come together to demand other real changes in Cook County government. Perhaps we could make a real effort to ensure the life and dignity of all innocent human beings will one day be respected by our government, and protected under law. There’s always hope.